Onto less productive activities by our State Legislature: yesterday it passed a bill, A1877, that would require all aspiring charter schools to subject themselves to a public referendum. Said one of the sponsors, Assemblyman Peter Barnes, in today’s Star-Ledger, “The public deserves the right to decide whether public dollars should be devoted to a charter school. Our democracy relies on giving the community a voice, and charter schools that are worthy will surely get the support they need.”
This proposed bill makes the Assembly look bad in two ways, one perceptual and the other ethical. First, unless one can quantify the benefits of grandstanding and pandering to local interest groups, this bill is a complete waste of everyone’s time. The Senate won’t pass it. Indeed, it may never make it to the floor: Senator Sweeney has said that he won’t call a vote on it because the bill would “absolutely shut down charter schools.” And, of course, Gov. Christie won’t sign it.
I’ve made the second point many times: see here, here, and here, for example. Referenda intended to benefit a minority of citizens historically can’t pass on a public ballot. That’s why civil rights bills don’t belong there, and why there was such an outraged reaction from the Statehouse when Gov. Christie proposed putting gay marriage to a public vote.
Think about a hypothetical charter school in a poor urban area. Maybe that school is proposing a public school program that would accept 150 kids (typical in a charter’s first year). How many people will vote for it, knowing the chances of their kids getting a slot is so small? Democracy doesn’t work that way. That’s why we have legislatures to protect minority interests.